The gulf in perceptions between the UK Government and the other members of he EU was highlighted by the story about the PM’s attendance at the Brussels summit. Telling the other members that we are not only going to walk away, but we also expect to play a full role in determining the future of the other 27 members in the meantime – and also expect them to consult and involve the UK in foreign policy decisions after Brexit – is a message that could only be delivered by the leader of a government which believes its country is particularly special and important in the world. It sounds like a message from someone who has little conception of how that message was likely to be received by the other members. It’s hard to conceive of a more certain way of making things difficult than continuing to behave in such a superior fashion.
But it isn’t just the Prime Minister; and I’m not the only one who thinks that they’re delusional. There was another story yesterday about a former Treasury civil servant who said that the Brexit Secretary and other ministers are living in “cloud cuckoo land” if they believe that the UK has the upper hand in trade talks as part of the Brexit deal. His comments were dismissed, of course, by the rabid Brexiters, but their problem isn’t simply the failure of basic mathematics in what they’re saying; it is also, like the PM’s comments, based on a failure to understand where the other EU members are starting from.
Mathematically, it is of course correct to argue that the EU sells more to the UK than the UK sells to the EU; but that comparison of totals is only part of the story. With 450 million people on one side of the equation and 60 million on the other, a higher number has a smaller proportional impact – it only becomes greater in impact if the trade balance is weighted something like 7:1 in favour of the 27. No-one is claiming anything remotely resembling that level of disparity.
But the bigger problem is one of starting points. It’s true, as the Brexiters claim, that if the EU takes a tough stance, then both sides will suffer – but the point is that Brexit is meant to hurt. Exit was never supposed to be easy, and whilst the UK’s Brexiters blithely assured everyone that the other 27 would climb down in the end, all they’re succeeding in doing is making them even more determined not to makes things too easy.
The Brexiters will argue, naturally, that this is short-sighted of the EU and that they will damage their own economies as well as ours. But that’s the whole point; from the outset, too many people in the UK have seen the EU as purely about economic advantages and disadvantages – they still don’t seem to understand that the European project has always been, from the very beginning, about more than economics. Economics has been the means to an end, not the end in itself.
The EU was founded out of the ashes of the second war to ravage the continent of Europe in half a century, and the intention of the founders was to make sure that it could never happen again. After the horror of total war across the territory of Europe, and the subsequent division of Europe into two mutually hostile blocs for decades, that desire for unity is entirely understandable. But the UK has always seen itself as being different. On the whole, the UK establishment rather seems to like going to war – and for the past few centuries, it has had the incredible advantage of fighting its wars on someone else’s territory, a factor which surely contributes to that different attitude.For the 27, the European project is about much, much more than economics – and it’s so important to them that they will be willing to take an economic hit in order to preserve and advance that project. Unless and until the UK government starts to understand that basic point, an approach based on an assumption that economic considerations will be top priority for ‘them’ because they are top priority for ‘us’ is doomed from the outset. I have no expectation of seeing any change though. Listening to, never mind understanding, other viewpoints has never been a particular strength in the upper reaches of the British establishment. They’ve always known with a cast-iron certainty that they are right.